Hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students and faculty crowded into the Afro-American Cultural Center Wednesday night to discuss allegations of institutional racism on campus.
More than 350 members of the Yale community attended the open forum, which centered around two controversies that have absorbed campus conversation since Friday: a Friday morning email sent by Silliman College Associate Master Erika Christakis criticizing oversensitivity to cultural appropriation, and charges that members of Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity racially discriminated against partygoers that same night. Members of the Black Student Alliance at Yale and the Intercultural Affairs Committee, as well as SAE brothers and Christakis, all attended the forum. Due to the large turnout of students and faculty, the forum had to be split into two rooms.
The open discussion, which lasted more than two hours, centered around the two specific debates, but expanded to address the day-to-day experiences of minority students, particularly women of color, on Yale’s campus. Students spoke out against the actions of both Christakis and SAE, which they said invalidated the experiences of Yale’s minority students.
During the discussion, numerous black female students stood before the crowd to share their experiences. Many said they did not feel safe on campus and felt a lack of respect from the Yale community, and others highlighted the emotional toil that incidents such as the two recent controversies cause. Some students also questioned the failure of the University’s highest administrators’ to publicly respond to these concerns, pointing out that University President Peter Salovey and Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway have yet to release a statement regarding the incidents. Neither Salovey nor Holloway attended the forum.
While many student speakers expressed dismay about Christakis’ email and the SAE event, they stressed that these were merely two of many instances of racial injustice black women and other minority students regularly face at Yale. Several also made reference to ongoing campus debates about the use of the term “master” in residential colleges and the renaming of Calhoun College.
Some student speakers recommended concrete actions the University could take in the wake of these controversies, such as immediate administrative response and acknowledgement, mandatory racial sensitivity training for the student body as a whole and mental health support for black women.
Emily Van Alst ’16 told the News that many students would like to see a message from Holloway directly addressing the situation. Holloway sent a collegewide email less than a day after swastikas were chalked onto the sidewalk outside Old Campus last October, she said, and the University administration needs to respond to current debates in a similar manner.
Holloway told the News that he cannot comment on the University’s ongoing investigation of SAE, but said he is deeply sympathetic to student concerns.
“I want to do what I can to reassure them that the administration is taking every aspect of this very seriously,” he said.
A moment of particularly heightened tension came when Christakis began to leave the room partway through the forum, just as a student moderator read an anonymous question directed towards her about appropriation of Native American culture in Halloween costumes. Christakis — who had not yet spoken at the forum — said she had a class waiting for her, but students called for her to stay, calling for her to give an answer.
In response, Christakis stood in front of the crowd to defend her email and assure those in attendance that she does not support racism. Before leaving, she announced her cell phone number, inviting students to reach out to her directly.
“I am privileged to be part of a community where the exchange of ideas is possible. I know we share common ground in our abhorrence of racism and hopes for a just society, and there are many pathways toward that goal,” Christakis wrote in an email to the News after the forum. “For my part, I see my role not so much to speak for students but to support them in speaking for themselves.”
She left shortly after her remarks in the first room to address the forum being held in the other room. However, many students in the room where she first spoke said they were not satisfied by her response and that it was disrespectful for her to leave.
“She didn’t address any of her own actions, she didn’t apologize, she still didn’t take blame for anything she said or the problems that she may have created in my community,” Mitchell Rose Bear Don’t Walk ’16, who publicly criticized Christakis during the forum, told the News.
Rather than serving as a place for intellectual debate, Bear Don’t Walk said, the forum was a safe space for community members to share their personal emotions and experiences. Bear Don’t Walk also said she does not feel students’ personal experiences should be debated and added that approaching them from an intellectual standpoint invalidates the real emotions of minority and oppressed groups.
Yale SAE President Grant Mueller ’17 also spoke in both rooms of the forum. He acknowledged that just because SAE has minority brothers does not mean that racism cannot exist in the fraternity, and he apologized to any students who might ever have felt unwelcome in the SAE house.
Some students, however, said Mueller’s apologies were not reflected in an opinion column he wrote for the News on Tuesday, in which he asserted that SAE is made up of diverse brothers and denied allegations of racism. Students at the forum asked him to commit to writing another column elaborating on the ideas he spoke on at the forum.
“It was beautiful that students both spoke, but, more importantly, listened. And moving forward, we know that there is a lot of work to do,” La Casa Cultural Dean Eileen Galvez told the News. “We are excited to know that people are willing to move Yale to a more inclusive space that truly belongs to us and doesn’t make students feel like they are Yalies of color, instead of Yalies that happen to be of color.”
Still, some students said they remain unsatisfied with the response from both SAE and Christakis during the forum.
Bear Don’t Walk said that while she thought Mueller’s apology was genuine, neither his nor Christakis’ response acknowledged that they did anything wrong or that anything actually happened.
Nat Aramayo ’17 said people like Christakis and groups like SAE still have a fundamental misunderstanding of, or refusal to acknowledge, the positions of power that they occupy.
“It’s great that the community as a whole is now partaking in these discussions,” Aramayo said. “But there also needs to be an understanding that it is an immense … privilege to occupy spaces and an identity where you don’t have to constantly be thinking about issues of race, class, gender or sexuality because your identity is never brought into question or … invalidated.”
This year marks the 46th anniversary of the Afro-American Cultural Center at Yale.